Verizon’s first 4G LTE smartphone launched with a flash of lightning and a crack of thunder. The HTC ThunderBolt is the first phone to take advantage of VZW’s LTE network, which offers the fastest mobile data speeds in the U.S. if you live and/or work where Big Red has rolled out 4G coverage. While roundly impressive, ThunderBolt does suffer from a few glitches and design “decisions” (ahem, bulk) worth considering before you hand over your hard-earned money and sign on for 24 months of service. Let’s dig deeper into the heart of the ThunderBolt.

ThunderBolt Pros:

  • LTE network is blazing fast if you’re within coverage area
  • Device is generally quite responsive
  • Huge display is vivid with good touchscreen performance
  • HTC Sense generally adds value to basic Android experience
  • 32 GB microSD card included

ThunderBolt Cons:

  • Very large and heavy for a smartphone
  • Network issues wreaking havoc with Mobile HotSpot app
  • Prolonged use of 4G drains battery
  • Single-core processor not on par with current state-of-the-art

Best For:

Verizon customers who live/work in LTE coverage areas. Fans of HTC Sense implementation of Android.

Web Site: Verizon Product Page

Suggested Retail Price: $249 (on contract price)

ThunderBolt Design

ThunderBolt looks a lot like HTC’s other high-end Android phones of recent memory. Take an Evo 4G, make it a little thicker, change a few things that the average Joe wouldn’t notice, and you’ve got a ThunderBolt. While not quite as sleek and sexy as the Inspire 4G for AT&T and its unibody construction, ThunderBolt is more or less the same as all the other current HTC phones with displays measuring four inches or more. Except that it’s noticeably thicker and heavier than its brethren.

The device’s lock/power button, mounted along its top edge was a little difficult to engage at times, but that was really my only qualm with ThunderBolt’s design – aside from its massive bulk. While Evo 4G’s kickstand was a polarizing add-on seen by some as a novelty, the idea of using a large smartphone as a portable media player has caught on to the point where ThunderBolt’s own kickstand is unquestionably a welcomed feature. The kickstand itself opens and closes with a solid action, and the chromed finish and detailing beneath the flip arm are typical of HTC’s attention to build quality and special little touches.

While ThunderBolt’s 4.3-inch WVGA display is “only” a standard TFT LCD, and not a Super LCD or Super AMOLED screen, it still performs more than adequately for most use cases. If you laid a TBolt out side-by-side with a Samsung Galaxy S (Super AMOLED) and HTC Desire Z (Super LCD), you’d notice a difference and likely not choose the ThunderBolt’s display as the pick of the litter. But on its own, ThunderBolt’s screen is nowhere near being a dealbreaker; it’s bright enough, sharp enough, and more than responsive enough for everything from messaging to pinch-and-zoom browsing to playing games and watching movies on.

ThunderBolt Performance

There’s no doubt that HTC’s ThunderBolt is the all-around fastest Android smartphone currently available on Verizon Wireless. If you’re using the device within Big Red’s 4G LTE coverage area, I’d go one further and say this this the fastest all-around Android device currently available. Period.

Smartphone performance depends on both the device itself and the network its running on, a combination whose ratio changes depending on the application in use. ThunderBolt’s 1GHz processor, 768 MB of RAM and WVGA display are not at the top of the class in their respective categories, as dual-core chipsets and qHD screens are available in competing devices like Motorola’s Atrix 4G for AT&T. But they still perform plenty well enough to drive Android 2.2 with HTC’s Sense user experience, and to capture and playback 720p HD video on the 800 x 480 display (annoying, ThunderBolt lacks the HDMI-out port that’s become so common on top shelf Droids of late). Yes, you’re friend’s Atrix or LG G2x will outclass your ThunderBolt on Quadrant benchmarking tasks, but no you probably won’t care or notice when you’re browsing the Web or checking your social media feeds.

What you will notice is how fast data flows up and down between your phone and your network, if you’re in range of Verizon’s 4G LTE network. I won’t dive too deep into test results here, since I’ve already done that in my first impressions post and this write up regarding VZW’s 4G performance in general. Having endured some hiccups with dropped 4G connectivity here, and larger problems with the Mobile Hotspot app there, Verizon and ThunderBolt seem to have righted themselves and are back to fairly steady, very fast network symbiosis. The SpeedTest.net app still can’t handle ThunderBolt’s data buffering schemes, but a quick test using the device in Mobile HotSpot mode confirmed earlier results: In Oakland, CA I’m getting 10+ Mbps down and 4 or so up on the regular, which is at least twice as fast as the nearest competing network (Sprint), and a bit slower than what folks are reporting in other parts of the country – including just across the Bay in parts of San Francisco.

The issues I was having with ThunderBolt’s Mobile HotSpot also seem to have eased up. Which is good because that particular feature had become entirely unusable for a few days there. What hasn’t changed is the massive draw on battery life using the 4G network creates. While a 4G Mobile Hotspot is a great feature, allowing up to five Wi-Fi enabled devices to share an LTE connection on the go, it also kills ThunderBolt’s battery right quick. The feature is still a potential selling point of the device, but figure on carrying an AC charger and/or extended life battery with you as well if you’re going to pay Verizon an extra $50 or $80 each month for the hotspot add-on plan.

Beyond its raw speed, I found ThunderBolt a joy to use in the same way that I find every HTC Android/Sense phone a joy to use. I’m not the world’s biggest Android supporter, but I fully understand those who love Google’s mobile platform for its customizability, flexibility, and extendibility. Sense adds what I consider to be a much-needed coat of user-friendly paint atop Android’s sometimes unpolished user experience, making ThunderBolt (and all of HTC’s Android phones) the easiest Droids for the layperson to pick up and get a lot out of. The downside to Sense is that it takes HTC some extra time to update their Android phones to the latest versions of the OS. As such, ThunderBolt ships with Android 2.2 at at time when 2.4 is the newest phone-specific release of the platform. If you know what that means, you know why you care about it – if not, simply pick up a ThunderBolt at a retail outlet and play with it for awhile. If you like it, that’s all you need to know.

Also … Call quality has been good but not great, with some folks coming through from the other end a bit fuzzy. And the cameras are good, though I’d take iPhone 4 by a hair over ThunderBolt in a video capture contest. One big flaw with this device is that it doesn’t ship with Skype, or any other native video chat app, preinstalled. Sure, you can install your pick of two-way video solutions from the Android Market, but if a phone’s going to have a front-facing camera and 4G connectivity, it really should be ready for video calling right out of the box. Flash media playback is possible, but not an entirely satisfying experience on the device, though that’s not at all unique to ThunderBolt. I experienced a couple of system hangs and freezes here and there, but again, nothing notably worse than I do on other smartphones, be they HTC-made, Android-powered, or anything else.

Conclusion

HTC’s ThunderBolt is Verizon’s first 4G LTE smartphone. When ThunderBolt was unveiled back at CES, it shared the stage with another 4G LTE device, the LG Revolution. Since then we’ve also seen a Samsung 4G LTE phone, likely named Droid Charge, in the wild. But neither of those phones are yet for sale, and ThunderBolt is. Which gives HTC the prime mover advantage in capturing power users who’ve been eagerly awaiting a smartphone ready to gobble up Verizon’s 4G data.

ThunderBolt isn’t without it’s faults, but none of them are necessarily dealbreakers. The single-core Qualcomm processor isn’t state-of-the-art but it’s fast enough. The glitches with 4G data and Mobile HotSpot are getting worked out. Skype’s absence is a big party foul, but it can be remedied with an app download and/or firmware update (soon, Verizon, soon!). The device’s bulk and sub-par battery life are, sadly, part of the cost of using the first LTE phone to grace America’s fastest mobile carrier.

If you want the fastest 4G phone out there, ThunderBolt’s the one. If you want a potent mix of Android power and Verizon speed, ThunderBolt’s the one – unless you don’t live within LTE coverage, in which case you should also check out Motorola’s Droids for VZW. If you don’t mind waiting, more 4G phones will be coming in short order, including dual-core Android phones and, most likely, an LTE iPhone. But who likes to wait when it comes to gadgets, right?